Cat Bite Abscesses

Today’s blog was written by final year veterinary student Alice Hurn. Alice has two dogs and one very spoilt cat named Lord Squilliam. She is interested in feline infectious diseases and dermatology.

Cats often get into fights, usually over territory, and for the unlucky ones this can end sorely with a bite. Cats’ teeth are sharp, so when they bite they produce small but deep puncture wounds. These can be be tender for a few days after the brawl, but often the cats show little sign of discomfort. However, when this puncture wound is made, the bacteria that are found in the cats mouth get into it. Over several days post- bite these bacteria grow and form pus underneath the skin. Due to their naturally tough, elastic skin which will readily seal over contaminated wounds, this pus will accumulate, forming an abscess. This is what we refer to as a ‘cat bite abscess’ and they make up a large proportion of your vet’s feline cases.

Cat bite abscesses are very painful and you may or may not be able to identify them yourself on your cat. Instead, you may often only notice subtle changes in your cats attitude. The cat may be off their food and not want to play or do their normal daily activities. As with any sort of infection, the cat will develop a fever which will also contribute to them feeling a bit under the weather. If the abscess starts to leak through the skin, you may notice your cat licking at it or may notice a horrible smell.

How will my vet know what the problem is?

The vet will be able to diagnose a cat bite abscess based on history and physical examination. Most cat bite abscesses are seen in outdoor cats, in particular intact males as they are more likely to fight over territory. As previously mentioned, owners often report in the history their cat being normal after the encounter and then having a change in behaviours a few days later. On physical exam, the vet would be able to identify a soft or firm swelling at the site of discomfort.

What will my vet do about it?

Treatment of cat bite abscesses aims to get rid of the infection and prevent further contamination and infection development. This is achieved by putting the cat on a course of antibiotics and by cleaning the wound and removing any dead tissue. The cat may need to be on a course of antibiotics for up to 10 days, and the vet can either give this as a long- acting injection or as tablets. Pus can interfere with the action of antibiotics, so the vet may choose to lance the abscess first to flush out all the pus and to clean the wound of an potential sources of contamination. If there is significant tissue damage at the wound site, this may also involve removing this tissue as it will inhibit the healing process. The wound site may be stitched back together, though it will most likely be left open to help the area drain further. The cat will also require some pain relief to make them feel more comfortable.

Will my cat be OK?

With proper treatment, the prognosis for most uncomplicated cat bite abscesses is excellent. However, there is always a concern in the back of the vets mind of some of the more nasty diseases that can be transmitted with cat bites. The main diseases of concern are feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). FeLV can be vaccinated against, so this is why it’s important for outdoor cats to be vaccinated and to keep their immunity tip-top with annual booster vaccinations. If cats do contract these viruses, their ability to fight off other infections decreases and it means they can spread the diseases on other hostile encounters. You can read more about FIV and what it means for your cat here.

How can I prevent it happening?

Cat bite abscess treatment can be costly and stressful. The only way to prevent your cat developing cat bite abscesses is to stop them fighting. This can be difficult, but there are some things you can do. Keeping your cat indoors will help, but cats that are used to going out might find it stressful. To reduce chances of fighting, tomcats should be neutered. You could even fence off your garden to discourage other cats from wondering into the territory.

And remember, although cat bite abscesses are painful and expensive to treat, the other diseases that can be caught by fighting can be far worse. Don’t forget to keep up to date with your cat’s vaccinations!

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